Inside Track – Neil Morris: Digital Technology - affordances and challenges

Professor Neil Morris, Interim DVC: Digital Transformation, reflects on the affordances and drawbacks of using digital technologies and digital approaches to support the university’s activities.

Inside Track – Professor Neil Morris: Freeing up our time with digital technologies. November 2020

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been fortunate to attend a number of presentations and events where researchers, teachers and practitioners have been discussing the opportunities and challenges posed by digital technologies and digital approaches. In all cases, the discussions have been rich and evidence-based, and have helped to enrich our understanding of how we need to mitigate and overcome potential challenges created by digital technologies, if we are to harness their full potential and reduce inequality and barriers. Here, I would like to share some of these examples.

Research perspectives on digital transformation

Last week, we hosted the annual Centre for Research in Digital Education research symposium – online – for the first time. In previous years, we would normally welcome an audience of around 100 colleagues to a lecture theatre on campus. This year, following a couple of tweets, a LinkedIn post and emails to mailing lists, we had 500 individuals from over 60 countries including the USA, Canada, Australia, Portugal, South Africa, Turkey, Indonesia, India and Argentina register to attend.

The event went very smoothly online, and the quality of the talks, and interaction between the audience and the speakers, was fantastic. Recordings of the presentations will be available on the Centre’s website soon.

Highlights to look out for are an opening speech from our Vice-Chancellor, findings from a University College London research study on the impacts of working from home, a critique of the notion of ‘flexibility’ in online study, and a critical interrogation of the potential value of learning analytics to support student success.

An over-riding theme of the discussion throughout the day was the need for us all to work hard to ensure that use of digital technology delivers on the promise to reduce inequalities and digital divides, and doesn’t reinforce existing inequalities or create new ones.

One of the major benefits of organising the symposium online was our ability to invite speakers from all over the world (speakers came from Canada, Australia and the UK), and for everyone to be able to attend the event without any international or domestic travel. The feedback from participants was very positive, including their sense of involvement and engagement with the speakers. The drawbacks of lack of traditional networking activities were surely outweighed by the positives of global involvement and minimal carbon impact.

Promoting and disseminating our research globally

And whilst we are talking about global reach for our research, I want to draw attention to a series of live online events taking place next week, via YouTube live.  The events, delivered by academic colleagues in the Faculty of Social Sciences, are focussed around the impact of COVID-19 on communities, disabled people and health inequalities.

These three sessions are part of a series of live events coordinated by the Digital Education Service, and are intended to help bring together our communities of staff, students, alumni and members of the public in online spaces, to debate topical and relevant issues.

Recordings of some of the previous events have had over 1,000 views, demonstrating their popularity to a global audience.

Supporting our students to engage in their practical learning

Closer to home, last week I was also fortunate to be able to attend an online LITE ‘See, Share and Adapt’ Workshop on virtual simulations and laboratories. The audience, composed of colleagues from across the university, heard from a range of speakers who have used their ingenuity, creativity and technical skills to enable students to engage with, and feel part of, laboratory-based practical activities.

The case study using live-streaming to enable students to direct a practical activity (provided by Chris Randall from Biological Sciences) gained a lot of interest, and seemed transferable to many other disciplines and contexts. You can download slides from the event, including details of the speakers.

This was the first in a series of events about virtual simulations and laboratories, and we hope that other colleagues will be willing to share their experiences at a future event, to help us build a community of practice and expertise in this area.

Automating processes to free up time

My final highlight from last week came in the form of an email from colleagues in the Student Education Service working on the Student Lifecycle Programme.

We were told that the team had worked collaboratively to automate the production of a Digital Proof of Award for students, from an existing, manual, time-intensive, process. Given that around 6,000 students could request this proof of award in December, the team have estimated that their work to digitise and automate this process has saved them 360 hours of work!

This a fantastic example of the power of digital technologies and digital approaches to automate processes, and free up time for high-value activities. Well done colleagues, and we look forward to hearing about your next successful automation.

Get involved in shaping our digital transformation strategy

As we develop the digital transformation strategy, we want to hear your views across a range of themes, including ways of working, research and student education. There are a number of ways you can get involved:

  • Tickets for the Leeds Conversations event about digital transformation on Tuesday 8 December are now sold out, but we will record the event and share this on For Staff and through eNews;
  • Provide a case study of effective digital transformation from your area of activity – you can share an outline case study via the MS Form, and we will be in touch to discuss this further;
  • Tell us your ideas about what our digital transformation priorities should be in the areas of student educationresearch and innovation and ways of working using our Padlet boards; and
  • Contact us to express interest in joining the digital transformation advisory group (open to all staff and students).

Further information

Read other Inside Track features recently published by Professor Morris:

Exploring the potential of online education

Freeing up our time with digital technologies

Enhancing our research and innovation through digital transformation 

Introducing DVC: Digital Transformation portfolio

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